One of my mother’s happier discoveries at the Harrogate care home where she has lived for the past couple of years has been the joys of ITV 3. On a rainy, miserable Yorkshire afternoon, the dedicated viewer can draw the curtains on both the garden and the 21st century, and thrive on a diet of comedy from the 1970s.
During my visits, the highlight of the day comes at 4.50pm. Two glasses of wine are poured and mum and I sit down, as we used to forty years ago, to watch ‘On the Buses’. She always loved this comedy of class relations, as did I growing up in the seventies. Seeing it again has been a revelatory experience. The sexism is breathtaking and brazen; the racism casual and ever present.
But On the Buses offers more than an opportunity to sigh with relief at the fact we now live in less intolerant times. The programme also paints a sunny portrait of a vanished world: self-confident, unionised and agile, the bus drivers effortlessly outwit Blakey, the hapless inspector charged with keeping order. Observing the jokes, ruses and wind-ups that make Blakey’s life hell, it is possible to re-connect with a communal sense of self-esteem that, viewed from Brexit Britain, is full of pathos.
That working-class world, with its solidarities and its exclusions, its sources of pride and power and its cruelties, was of course demolished during the 1980s. Economic and social liberalism swept away the old order.
If you were gay, female or black, that was in many respects a cause for celebration. But the 2010 encounter between Gillian Duffy and Gordon Brown showed how spectacularly the Left failed to attend to the fall-out in its own heartlands. A crisis of meaning developed in those communities, along with an insecurity about identity, that Conservative and then Labour governments (and liberal commentators) failed to take seriously, or even comprehend.
Belated recognition of that broken relationship has become a truism in the space of about 6 weeks, not least thanks to the work done by John Harris and John Domokos in the Guardian series, Anywhere but Westminster, and the analyses of people like Rob Ford (author of Revolt on the Right). But for years it went all but unnoticed, even when the west central belt of Scotland deserted Labour for the SNP. Getting to the heart of how this happened, and why, holds the key to understanding the wider crisis in Britain and other advanced capitalist societies.
As the world that gave rise to programmes like ‘On the Buses’ and the ‘Likely Lads’ disappeared, Labour governments came to accept the tendentious division between economics and politics that Margaret Thatcher instituted. According to the new dispensation, the economy, if wealth was to be generated, should be left to private enterprise and initiative. Wealth creators were freed from countervailing forces such as unions, the wider community interest and Whitehall ‘planning’. As far as was possible, the market mechanism, conceived as free association between individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest, was to proceed unhindered.
This neoliberal turn had consequences far beyond putting Blakey back in charge of the bus depot (“managers must be left to manage”). In the absence of an economic strategy dedicated to balanced growth - a politics of growth - regions and places fell behind. Meanwhile the retreat of government led to a cultural revolution.
Business began to mount a reverse takeover of the public sphere. The newly-ascendant market ethos - competition, choice, individualism, league tables etc - penetrated deep into schools, hospitals, universities and local government.
As consumers and choosers in a de-industrialised economy, there was an increasing expectation that individuals should become entrepreneurs of their own lives, shorn of the certainties and continuities that belonged to previous generations. Mobile, highly-educated, confident people loved this. Many of those without such advantages hated it. But their deepening insecurity was ignored.
The role of the politician in this globalising era of life-as-competition was to stand on the sidelines, as a kind of club coach/doctor: the politician-coach ensured that society’s playing field was made as level as possible - the ‘social mobility/life chances’ agenda; the politician-doctor tried to ameliorate the situation of the inevitable losers in the game, both individuals and regions.
‘Left’ and ‘right’ distinctions largely came to signify the degree of intervention promised with regard to ‘life-chances’, and the level of generosity on offer to the losers (not much during the era of austerity).
It was Labour politicians’ refusal to think outside these self-imposed parameters, placing the way we live at the mercy of an individualist market-led ethos, that generated the intense frustration that led to the Corbyn phenomenon.
Brexit may well come to be seen as the profound shock that finally ended this political and cultural settlement, which was already fatally undermined by the crash and flatlining economic growth.
Multiple economic warnings that the wheels were coming off preceded the referendum: median wages stagnating as pay at the top soared; growing distrust and contempt for elites of all types; increasing numbers of graduates going into non-graduate employment; the tech-led obsolescence of swathes of white-collar jobs; left-behind regions tumbling into economic irrelevance and living on subsidy.
In the end, the accumulated resentments generated successive cultural insurgencies in Scotland, then England. Anomie came wrapped in the flag of new (very distinct) nationalisms. And in the lead-up to Brexit, the liberal principle of freedom of movement was rejected as a totem of the abstract thinking that paid too little mind to where and how people lived.
Theresa May’s re-introduction of the phrase “industrial strategy” into the political lexicon, along with other nods to ‘One Nation’ Toryism, indicates an awareness on the right that something needs to change.
But is it really plausible that a Conservative government, faced with the lonely status of Brexited Britain, will deviate from a low-tax, light-touch, small state route to signalling we are ‘open for business’? Especially a government with David Davies and Liam Fox at its heart?
The Times editorial, published the day after May’s entry into Downing Street, indicated the more probable way ahead:
“Cut the regulatory burden on businesses… cut corporation tax to 10%, below Ireland…Britain under new management will not confound doubters with policies that prioritise social justice.”
In all likelihood then, if a progressive counter-philosophy to three decades of economic liberalism is to emerge, it will only be from the dishevelled, ramshackle and divided ranks of the centre-left. Irvine Welsh wrote recently of England’s inability to develop an “inclusive, civic, progressive nationalism”. That is surely now the task.
The ethos should be both communitarian and plural, less about abstract rights than about the empowerment of real people in real places.
About how resources could actively be re-distributed from London; how re-balancing the economy could be prioritised over overall GDP growth; how the ‘life-chances’ agenda could be supplemented by a ‘living-together’ programme which focuses on the flourishing of communities as well as individuals.
Between 1/4 and 1/3 of all current jobs in western economies will be automated within 20 years, so proposals for a universal basic income by economists such as Robert Skidelsky need to be taken seriously and developed.
A public solution to the appalling and growing crisis in social care needs to be found, involving some form of death duties. A progressive nationalism needs to find the courage to argue that case and win it, taking on the Daily Mail and co. The issue of public ownership and control needs to be critically re-visited and where appropriate, argued for again, in forms appropriate to the second decade of the 21st century. Much of this can amount to a progressive nationalist template for ‘taking back control’.
UKIP’s 4m votes at the last election translated into one seat in parliament. The case for PR has become overwhelming. It should become the condition of any Labour-led Progressive Alliance, including the SNP, the Greens, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Women’s Equality Party. The underlying principle should be that, via politics at a national and local level, people should be able to discuss and organise their lives according to more spacious, generous principles than those afforded by a doctrinaire market liberalism. The alternative is a deepening of the divisions and the anger that gave us Brexit.
In a beautiful recent essay for the New Statesman, Jeremy Seabrook, described with great profundity the dislocation and nostalgia felt by people living in places stripped of meaning and coherence in the post-industrial era. A nostalgia that keened even for ways of living that were harsh and brutal at times.
“Grief” wrote Seabrook, “makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better.”
Mulling over that truth would be a good starting point for a new politics dedicated to healing the wounds the referendum laid bare.
Julian Coman is a writer and journalist. He writes for The Observer. | @fernville